And indeed, rookie teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank, almost believable as a coltish 23-year-old) is judged by students, teachers and administrators alike on the basis of her appearance—her polka dots and pearls symbols of a privileged upbringing dramatically different from those of the freshmen in her remedial English classes at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif. “Those are lovely pearls,” her department chair (Imelda Staunton) remarks, “I wouldn't wear them to class.”
Rebelling against the low expectations of kids and adults alike, Gruwell manages to, yes, inspire her inner-city charges with an improvised curriculum meant to bridge racial divides by teaching tolerance with books such as Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. (“So when's Anne going to smoke Hitler?” asks one her students, who describe themselves as “soldiers” in an “undeclared war” in melodramatic diary entries.) Gruwell takes a second, and then a third, job so she can supplement in-class exercises with field trips and in-person interactions with Holocaust survivors.
Unfortunately, writer/director Richard LaGravenese squanders much of the potential power of this real-life story by sloppily chopping it in half —chronicling only two of Gruwell's four years with the students in Room 203 and trying unsuccessfully to hype an administrative hearing with school district officials into a dramatic climax.
One of the most touching scenes is one in which Miep Gies, the woman who helped hide Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis during World War II, inspires the students by telling them that anyone can “turn on a small light in a dark room.” That's what LaGravenese manages to do with
— he turns on a light in the darkened theater, but it's a small one.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, Imelda Staunton, Scott Glenn, April Lee Hernandez, Mario, Jason Finn and Hunter Parrish
Director/Screenwriter: Richard LaGravenese
Producers: Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher
Rating: PG-13 for some violent content, some thematic material and language
Running time: 123 min.
Release date: January 5, 2007